God’s Will is Not an Algorithm (Looking At You Christian Mingle)

I’m prepping to preach on Psalm 25:1-10.  I think it’s timely.images

See, I have serious issues with people breaking the Second Commandment.

I think it’s a woefully misunderstood commandment, by and large.

Most of my Confirmation kids think it’s about cursing when we first come to it in our study of the Decalogue.  By the time they leave, though, I hope they have a broader view…they tell me they do.

I want to impart this much on them: as a preacher I am very (i.e., terribly) nervous about ever saying something from the voice of God.  Because I don’t want to use God’s name, or likeness, or voice, uselessly.  This is really what the Second Commandment is about, I think.

So that lovely billboard that says, “You know that ‘Love one another’ thing?  I mean that.-God”.  I think it’s in bad taste.  And poor form.

And I think it breaks the Second Commandment just as much as those signs that say, “God hates fags.”

I don’t think their impact is the same, of course.  The former is aimed toward a reminder of love, the latter is best used as firewood.  But I think they’re both wrongheaded.

In Psalm 25 we have a student (the Psalmist) entreating the teacher (God) to teach them and lead them on godly “pathways.”  “Show me how to live,” the Psalmist asks.

And if you go to the book store, you’ll see tons of books dedicated to just that.  There are so many in this world who are simply convinced of God’s will, pathway, for not only their life but also yours.

And I am suspicious of it all.  And it gives me the shakes to think that I am culpable at times of falling into that same trap.

It’s like Christian Mingle’s tagline, that online dating service marketed specifically for Christians: “Find God’s Match for You.”

Do we really think that God’s will is algorithmic in origin?  Do we really think that God wants you to choose from a pull-down menu “washboard abs” (an actual choice on that site), and that God’s match for you will appear based on that, your height, and your education level?

God, I hope not.

Why, then, do we think that other things pertaining to God’s will align like this?

Career changes, relationships, neighborhood locations, vacation destination…”where does God want me to go?  What is God’s will for my life?”

So often this is just a way for us to find ways of getting divine support for our own decisions and situations.  I would be the first to admit that I don’t think God wants you to harm yourself or others; I can say that this is not “the good” that God desires for humanity.  But between two career choices?  Or a neighborhood move? Or a relationship?

Can we not be honest about it all and say that to quickly know God’s will…perhaps to know it at all…is really just a way we try to placate ourselves into thinking we’re making good choices?

Leslie D. Weatherhead, that process theologian best known for his work The Will of God (a good, if dated, work), tells the story of the parson who is offered a high-paying job at a new parish in the next city over, twice the salary of his current position.  When a young parishioner asked the parson’s son what his father will do, the son replies, “Well, Dad is praying over it, but Mom is packing.”

I think Dad has made his choice.  Or maybe Mom has.  A humorous (and true) example of this in action.

The worst example of course, and I’ve mentioned this before, is assigning tragedy to being part of “God’s will.”

This is another placation of sorts.  It’s easy for us to deal with life situations if we believe they’re divinely ordained.

But I want to talk about honesty here; I don’t want to be careless just because it’s useful. And I don’t think God wanted your child to die, your mother to have cancer, you to be born with one arm, or that Asiana Airlines flight to crash.

Gravity happens.  Cells divide and mutate…sometimes in ways that are tragic for life.

But to call such things “God’s will” is sick and demented and wrong.  And it’s not any better to say, “Well, I’d never say it at the time because it’s not helpful, but it’s true that it is God’s will…”

In fact, that’s worse because it’s patronizing.

And I think it’s wrong to say that it must be God’s will that these things occur because in such situations people gain great insight, or muster great courage, and that those goods outweigh the tragic bad.

In this vein Weatherhead can again be enlightening.  He notes that tragic situations do not cause great courage or insight, they just uncover it.  And to suggest that such courage or knowledge couldn’t be gained in other, non-tragic ways, is shortsighted.

We either give lip service to seeking “God’s will” while just reinforcing our own, or we proclaim “God’s will” carelessly while not really knowing what we’re talking about.

Both are sad realities for the Christian world.  This is how I see it most often done, though.

To steal Kierkegaard’s famous title, the topic of God’s will should approached with “fear and trembling.”  And with a healthy dose of mystery.

This is why spiritual disciplines are very important.  They’re less than formulaic; anyone immersed in deep discernment can tell you that it often feels like three steps forward and two back when trying to suss out a path in the deep woods of doubt and indecision.

They invite us into mystery.

Finding the will of God is less like being the captain of a ship out at sea whose rudder turns it sharply as the stars realign and the course changes in the captain’s sight.  We want such swift movement…we desire it and love it when people tell us they have such clarity.

But I, by and large, don’t trust it…and don’t encourage you to, either.

I liken it more to being a laborer on an archeological dig where slowly we uncover the thing we are seeking. And even then we sometimes end up uncovering a broken pot when we were hoping for a dinosaur.

The fact that God’s will is difficult…impossible in the specifics?…to determine is clear by those who commit themselves to the monastic life.

It is, in essence, declaring that one might arrive at God’s will by the time the tomb calls us.  Maybe. Hence why it’s a life choice.  And a good bit of discernment goes into deciding to enter an order; it takes years and years.

And sometimes people discern wrongly.  God’s will is not algorithmic in nature.

Instead of always hastily proclaiming knowledge of God’s will, I’d much rather we all agree to stumble blindly (and be honest about it) while fervently praying, discerning, and sifting for goodness in this world as we go.  Seek God’s will; sure.  But let’s not pretend to be so certain or have such clarity.  Let’s not pretend to have quick answers and divine revelations when really all we want is wish reinforcement.

I don’t think Christian Mingle can find God’s match for you.  I think it can find you some good dates, and maybe even a partner (apparently only if you’re straight, though…you can’t seek for the same sex).

But I wouldn’t say that the person you find there is “God’s match” for you anymore than the person you pick up at the bar.  And I think they should be ashamed for using that tagline.  It breaks the Second Commandment.  And it’s a dumb tagline anyway.

Instead of waiting around for God’s will, do something (very Lutheran) and step out into the world.  Sift away at the sands of life as you go; look for the good.  But don’t imagine that you can be on the “wrong path” anymore than you are on the “right path.”

You are on the pathway.  At each step you sift a little more and slowly eek out the beautiful existence.

The Psalmist doesn’t wait for God to teach them the right path before beginning the journey, but instead prays for constant companionship and enlightenment and courage as they go.  I hope I can do that, too.  Hence why I practice spiritual disciplines (as best I can).

So throw away those books that proclaim God’s will for your life is only 200 pages away; you can be “purpose driven” without it, I think.

And if you write such books, do so with fear and trembling and not because you know it will sell in a world where people want quick answers, and literalism, and divine algorithms.  What we need is honesty.  And I’m often a reluctant Christian because honesty seems to be kind of rare in this particular arena.

The Sighs of an Oppressed People

Sisyphus Crossing

I’m not a Marxist.

I do, however, like the t-shirt put out by Threadless.com of the “Communist Party.”  I imagine a Marxist has to drink a lot.

But Marx, in his wisdom (and foolishness…aren’t we all of that same coin currency?) wrote in Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophyof Right:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.  It is the opium of the people.”

The call to slough off the cubicles of the bourgeoisie, including the cubicle of religion, is the call to get sober, to get organized, to get…to get.

I took an interesting class the final semester of my seminary career.  It was entitled, “Engaging Violence through Theater” or something as equally ambiguous and enticing.  In preparation for our final practicum, the class assembled with some residents of a local retirement community to talk about the nebulous topic of “spirituality” to plumb the depths of using theater as a way to bridge gaps and rips in the societal fabric caused by factious religious tension.

In that circle of chairs were priests, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, all defined broadly. With the exception of the advanced ages of all the attendees (minus the seminary students), there was quite a bit of diversity in the room in general.

Through the course of a mostly civil and enlightening discussion, there were a couple of peaks of agitation.  At one such peak a very irritated woman, a devout atheist, said something to the effect of, “I don’t need a god, and I think the implication that I do is insulting!”

Point well taken.

Directly following her statement, an elderly African American woman with a severe palsy, who had previously spoken of the faith of her parents in slavery, spoke up, “Listen.  From my tradition, we made a god because we needed a god.  If you don’t need him, don’t take him. But, leave our god alone.”

Point well taken.

Religion is the sigh of an oppressed people.

I like this notion of Marx however much I would like to divorce the opiate reference.  After all, if religion is an opiate of sorts, you’d think that “religious people” would be happier…another notch in Hitchens’ belt for pointing out that fact.

But that idea takes for granted that the point of religion, or even faith for that matter, is to impart happiness; a mistaken conclusion, I think.  For while religion or faith (not the same, mind you, but I’m not interested in dissecting each at this junction) might indeed provide for it’s adherents’ happiness, this is not the goal…at least not in the mind of the faith-laden individual writing this blog.

Kiekegaard, in Fear and Trembling, warns against looking at faith lightly.  He writes,

“But what no one has the right to do is let others suppose that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter, when in fact it is the greatest and most difficult of all.”

Difficult because, well, our oppressions…in their forms…cause us to scramble for the concrete: beliefs, forms, arguments.  Cause us to scramble for happiness, satiation, comfort.  Cause us to set goals that we can fill ourselves with until we get that “just full enough” feeling.

Yes, full of it.  It’s gotten.  And I do not discount the fact that many people use their beliefs in this way, whether theistic, atheistic, or somewhere in between.  It gets us that “just full enough” feeling.

But the Knight of Faith, a person whom Kierkegaard is admittedly not able to be, knows that, “faith finds its proper expression in (the person) whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought.  (They) act on the strength of the absurd.”

The strength of the absurd.

Why do we shy away from this word, “absurd”?

I’d like to think that it is probably the absurd that overcomes oppression in most situations.  In those situations when it appears that power, however its form, should win, we then and there find that power is in fact weakness because in the face of the absurd you are not dealing with elements of the same nature.

Like steel and fire: both powerful, but in different ways…one dissolving the other.

And yet, metaphors only go as far as they do.


Kant, in section III of the Philosophical Doctrine of Reason, relates an interesting bit on the sigh of humanity.  He notes,

“A member of the English Palriament exclaimed in the heat of debate: ‘Every man has his price, for which he sells himself.’ If this is true (and everyone can decide by himself), if nowhere is a virtue which no level of temptation can overthrow, if whether the good or evil spirit wins us over only depends on which bids the most and affords the proptest pay-off, the, what the Apostle says might indeed hold true of human beings universally, ‘There is no distinction here, they are all under sin-there is none righteous (in the spirit of the law), no, not one.”


And were religion, as an institution, meant to address this situation, to answer the moral question, we would end up looking at straw as well.  Indeed, I’m quite convinced that morality is not contingent upon organized religion.  And yet, organized religion is used by many in just this way…another way of getting full of morality, of seeking to point at the moral seed and exclaim, “I’ve found the tree of life.”

And yet.

And yet, we have never arrived at that thing that acknowledges the communal “sigh”.  You see, even with moral and emotional satisfaction being found outside of organized religion (and within), we still, as a whole, as humanity, sigh.

That seems absurd…to sigh even when it seems that all we are needing is at hand with and without systems.

And that absurdity, that, I think, is no drug.  That’s more real than anything I’ve found.  And it hints of faith…the faith that in chaos is indeed order.

Whether we are insulted by the insinuation that somehow God is necessary, or insulted by the fact that God may not be necessary, we fall under the same oppression.  We think we know.  Slavoj Zizek claims that the god we think we understand is like a Tamagotchi toy-our own creation which subsequently makes demands upon us.

Whether it is the god of Reason, like Hitchens, the god of Order, like Marx, or the God of Israel, like Swindol.

Perhaps the sigh, then, is the only appropriate response.  It is not a sigh of despair, nor a sigh of anguish, but a sigh of relief.

Relief in the fact that we don’t understand God.

That’s absurd.  Indeed.